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Learn How To Protect Your Debit Card From Scanners and Skimmers

Maria Marcano, Consumer Operations
Oct 27, 2023
 Min Read

According to the 2021 Annual Issue on Fraud Statistics by the Nilson Report, payment card fraud losses worldwide increased by 14% in 2021, exceeding $32 billion. With the number of payment card fraud and scams on the rise, debit card users should be aware of the potential security risks, two of which involve scanning and skimming. 

These types of scams are still popular despite them being around for many years. According to an FBI article on skimming, $1 billion is stolen in skimming scams every year, causing significant damage to consumers and financial institutions. 

In this article, you will learn how to protect your debit card from scanners and skimmers. You will also discover alternative payment methods that will keep your financial data safe during in-person and online transactions.

How Do Debit Cards Work? The Basics


A debit card is a payment card associated directly with your checking account, and you can use it in place of cash to pay for goods or services or to withdraw cash from an ATM. When a debit card transaction takes place, the card draws the funds available in your checking account to cover the payments. Typically, most banks only allow their debit cardholders to spend the funds they have in their checking account without being penalized with overdraft fees.

Every debit card has a unique PIN (Personal Identification Number), a security measure used to verify your identity during in-person transactions. When making a purchase or withdrawing cash with a debit card, you swipe, insert, or use contactless pay at the card terminal or ATM and must enter your PIN, although some vendors allow you to make a purchase without the PIN code.

When it comes to online payments, you need to type in the 16-digit debit card number, the expiration date on your card, and the security code (CVV, CCD, or similar) to make a purchase. You must also enter the billing address linked to the debit card for the transaction to be completed successfully.

Debit card scanning and skimming are types of fraud that usually occur during in-person transactions, but skimming can also happen online, as you will discover in the following sections.

What Are Debit Card Skimming Scams?

Skimming involves the illegal capture of a victim’s card information using a device known as a skimmer. The fraudster then typically sells the stolen data on the dark web or creates counterfeit debit cards to make fraudulent purchases or cash withdrawals.

Debit card skimming scams usually occur at point-of-sale (POS) terminals, ATMs, and gas pumps. Skimming typically involves:

  1. A device designed to steal your card information
  2. A camera or keypad overlay that steals your PIN

A Device Designed To Steal Your Card Information

A fraudster can insert a skimming device inside a card reader slot or place it on top of a card reader to perform this type of scam. When you swipe the card, the device steals all the information on it, such as card number, CVV, and expiration date. Skimming devices are typically small and well-hidden, making them difficult to spot.

A Camera or Keypad Overlay That Steals Your PIN

Fraudsters may also install a hidden camera near a keyboard or place a thin overlay over it to record the PIN and ZIP code that you enter when making a purchase or withdrawing cash at an ATM. 

Source: Eduardo Soares

E-Skimming—A Digital Skimming Method You Should Look Out For

Debit card users should also be aware of an increasingly common fraud practice called e-skimming. Skimming attacks evolved from primarily physical to digital as a result of users rapidly shifting to online purchases since the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring fraudsters to change their tactics.

In this electronic version of skimming, scammers drive customers to a fake domain that appears to be a regular checkout page and then capture the card information as the customer enters it. 

What Is Debit Card Scanning?

Similarly to card skimming, card scanning is a type of payment card theft where the fraudster with a scanning device gets close enough to your bag or wallet to scan your card number. This type of fraud is enabled by the fact that today’s payment cards typically work on Radio Identification Frequency (RFID) technology. RFID-enabled cards have a tag or a chip in them that sends or receives information, and this chip is activated when the card is held near a scanner to help carry out a wireless transaction. The fraudster has to be from 5-6 inches to a few meters from you to scan your card number, and they typically manage to do it in crowded places such as gas stations, buses, trains, and malls.

What Should You Do if You’re a Victim of Card Scanning or Skimming?

You likely won’t be aware you were a victim of scanning or skimming until you notice suspicious charges on your bank statement, which can happen days or even weeks after the crime took place. If you determine fraud has occurred, it is important to react as fast as possible and notify your bank to limit your liability for unauthorized charges on your debit card.

Consumer debit cards are protected by the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, which governs consumers’ liability for unauthorized charges on their debit cards depending on when they report the fraud. The following table offers these liability details more in-depth:

Time Frame for Reporting the Crime
Up to $50
Within 2 days
Up to $500
Between 2 and 60 days
Potentially unlimited
After 60 days

Most banks and financial institutions have zero liability policies for most consumer debit cards, which means you will most likely not be responsible for any unauthorized payments if a fraudulent transaction on your debit card occurs. However, this policy varies depending on the bank connected to the debit card used. The best course of action in case of a debit card fraud incident would be to contact your bank directly and inquire about your specific situation.

Once you report you were a victim of fraud, the bank will block your debit card to prevent further unauthorized charges and issue a replacement card. If you were using your debit card for automatic payments, you should update the billing information with those specific merchants as soon as you receive your new card details.

Tips for Protecting Your Card Data From Scanners and Skimmers

Source: Anastasia Nelen 

As previously mentioned, skimming devices are typically difficult to spot, so you can’t rely on detection alone to determine whether a particular POS terminal or ATM machine is entirely safe. Alternatively, scanning can be done fairly inconspicuously in a crowded place. Luckily, you can employ other preventative methods to protect your debit card data from scanners and skimmers, such as:

Stack Your Cards in Your Wallet 

Stacking all your cards inside your wallet may distort the waves, making it difficult for the scanning device to read the information.

Protect Your PIN

You can cover your hand while entering your PIN or ZIP code to protect it from being recorded by a camera. However, this method won’t work if there’s a keypad overlay recording what you type.

Compare Card Readers

If you’re purchasing at a store that has two card readers, take a quick look to confirm they are the same—any differences between number pads, such as odd colors or small holes, can indicate the presence of a skimming device in one of them.

Use Bank-Owned ATMs Only

ATMs at shopping malls, bus stations, airports, and other public places are more likely to have a skimmer installed. Bank ATMs tend to have better security, keeping the risk of skimming to a minimum.

Switch To Virtual Cards

Since e-skimming is becoming an increasingly popular method of stealing users’ card information, making purchases online might not entirely protect you. Switching to virtual cards will—they are connected to a real funding source, such as your bank account or debit card, but mask that information during transactions. If a hacker breaches the merchant’s servers, they can only steal your virtual card information, while your real card and bank data will remain shielded.

If you’re interested in giving virtual cards a go, you may be able to get them from your bank, provided they offer the service. However, a much better option would be to choose an independent virtual card provider, like Privacy, and get more customization options and control features alongside robust security.

Source: Clay Banks

What Is a Privacy Virtual Card, and How Can It Safeguard Your Debit Card?

Privacy offers its users the possibility of creating virtual cards connected to their debit card or bank account. A Privacy Virtual Card has a unique 16-digit number with its own CVV and expiration date, and you can use it for online purchases like you would a regular debit card. The provider is compatible with almost all U.S. banks, and any U.S. citizen or legal resident over 18 years old with a checking account at a U.S. bank or a credit union is eligible to sign up for the service.

With Privacy, you enjoy a more secure online payment experience thanks to Merchant-Locked and Single-Use Virtual Cards, and here’s how:

Card Type How It Protects You What It’s Perfect for
Merchant-Locked Cards This type of card locks to the first merchant you use it at. A potential hacker who steals your virtual card data won’t be able to use it elsewhere. 1. Subscriptions
2. Recurring transactions
3. Merchants you shop at frequently
Single-Use Cards A Single-Use Card closes shortly after you complete the first purchase, making it useless to potential hackers 1. Merchants you don’t plan on shopping with again
2. When you are concerned about the security of the transaction

How Else Privacy Improves Your Online Shopping Experience

On top of providing robust security, Privacy Virtual Cards enable you to:

  • Set a spending limit—You can set per-card, monthly, or annual limits on your virtual cards, and Privacy will automatically decline transactions that exceed your defined budget. This feature is perfect for controlling your expenses and preventing merchant overcharges. 
  • Pause/close your virtual cards—Privacy allows you to pause, unpause, and close your Privacy Card, which can be quite convenient if you want to block unwarranted subscription charges. The pausing or closing won’t affect your actual card or bank account.
  • Set browser extensions for fast checkouts—Privacy can save you time during checkouts with Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and Safari browser extensions that autofill your virtual card data in the checkout fields. If you prefer to shop on mobile, you can leverage the Safari extension for iOS devices.
  • Shop safely from your phone—You can download the Privacy Android or iOS app and create and manage your virtual cards wherever you are. The mobile app sends push notifications whenever your Privacy Cards have been used or declined, making it easy to keep track of your purchases in real time.

Request a Privacy Virtual Card in a Few Simple Steps

To start using Privacy, follow these steps:

  1. Access the signup page
  2. Enter the information required to verify your identity
  3. Add a funding source, such as your debit card or bank account
  4. Request and generate a Privacy Virtual Card

Privacy’s basic plan is free for domestic purchases and allows you to create up to 12 virtual cards a month. With the two higher plans, you can create up to 60 virtual cards monthly and enjoy other benefits, such as no fees on foreign transactions, 1% cashback on eligible purchases totaling up to $4,500 a month, and priority support.

Privacy — Seamless & Secure Online Card Payments
Checkout securely online by creating unique virtual card numbers for every purchase. Avoid data breaches, unwanted charges, and stolen credit card numbers.
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Privacy — Seamless & Secure Online Card Payments
Checkout securely online by creating unique virtual card numbers for every purchase. Avoid data breaches, unwanted charges, and stolen credit card numbers.
Sign Up
Privacy virtual cards
Spending Limits

Set a spending limit, and Privacy will block all charges that go over the limit

Merchant-Locked Cards

Lock your Privacy card to one merchant you frequently shop from

Single-Use Cards

Secure your one-time payments to websites whose trust worthiness you're unsure of

Pause/Close Cards

By pausing or closing a card, Privacy will block all future transactions

Get a Privacy Card Now
Privacy — Seamless & Secure Online Card Payments
Checkout securely online by creating unique virtual card numbers for every purchase. Avoid data breaches, unwanted charges, and stolen credit card numbers.
Sign Up
Privacy — Seamless & Secure Online Card Payments
Sign Up